December 20, 2009

My Christmas Wish for Each and Every One of You


This nation of ours has a long and proud history of producing incompetent loser assassins. Assassin-wise, in fact, we’ve produced far more Clouseauesque bumblers than cold-blooded killers. One of my personal favorites was Giuseppe Zangara, the half-pint Italian anarchist who took a few shots at Franklin Roosevelt in Miami back in 1933.

Zangara was a short, poor, and sickly fellow, see, with an uncontrollable flatulence problem and some serious issues with capitalism. When FDR decided to stop and make an impromptu speech to a crowd of well-wishers from the back of his open-topped car, Zangara saw it as an opportunity to take care of at least one small part of the capitalist problem. He ran and got his gun, but short as he was, found there was no way he could get a clear shot from where he stood. So thinking quickly, he grabbed a chair and climbed up on it.

            Now, you’d think a man standing on a chair pointing a gun and farting wildly would be pretty easy to pick out of a crowd, and he was. But before he was pulled back to Earth by the mob, he was able to squeeze off five shots. None of them hit Roosevelt, but they did strike four bystanders—one of the bullets killing Chicago Mayor Cermak, who for some reason was in Florida that day. Zangara, as you might imagine, was sent to the electric chair, cursing capitalists until his last breath.

            Funny little man, Zangara. Anyway, a couple of weeks before the end of the semester, I was lecturing my class on Arthur Bremer, John Hinckley, and Taxi Driver as a rare and perfect example of life imitating art imitating life. While I was putting the lecture together, something occurred to me. A throwaway thought, really—utterly meaningless—but one I found kind of interesting.

            Let me set it up.

            Arthur Bremer was born in Milwaukee to an astoundingly dysfunctional family. He grew into a withdrawn and socially awkward young adult, who worked as a janitor in his old high school and started dating for the first time when he was twenty. Problem was, the girl was fourteen. Worse yet, she called it off after the third date. An undeterred Bremer stalked her for awhile until her mother threatened to call the cops.

            Taking stock of his life after that, Bremer realized he was a loser who had failed at nearly everything he’d tried. He vowed to become a Somebody, to make a name for himself, to be famous. But how do you go about doing such a thing?

            Hmmm . . .

            Hey! I know! Kill the president!

            Well, Nixon was president at the time, and in 1972 he was on the campaign trail, but it didn’t take long for Bremer to discover that security was way too tight for him to get close enough to take a shot, so he shifted his focus to the Democratic front runner—Alabama governor George Wallace. After a few weeks of wacky hijinx, he finally shot and paralyzed Wallace in Baltimore in May of ’72.

            As for making a name for himself, that didn’t quite work out the way Bremer had hoped. But even if his name quickly melted from the public consciousness, his efforts did inspire a few novels, at least one song, and a couple of movies—most notably Taxi Driver. Despite what screenwriter Paul Schrader may claim, Travis Bickle is just Arthur Bremer with a new job in a new city. And no residuals.

            Now, five years after Arthur Bremer was born to a crappy family, John Hinckley was born to a wealthy and indulgent family. Although Hinckley had a lot of big dreams, when it came to actually doing the work necessary to fulfill them, he was as much an incompetent boob as Bremer had been.

            Then in 1976 Taxi Driver came out. Maybe he saw a bit of himself in Bickle/Bremer, but whatever the reason he went to see it again and again—and in the process became obsessed with Jodie Foster. This is more than a little weird when you remember that she was a fourteen year old playing a twelve year old hooker. Still, creepy or no, he was hooked.

After a few years of stalking, Hinckley concluded that the only reason she wasn’t reciprocating his affections was an issue of status. If he was as famous as she was, well then, of course she’d fall in love with him.

            But how do you become famous?

            Hmmm . . .

            Well, you know the rest.

            There have been any number of assassins and would-be assassins throughout American history: John Wilkes Booth, Charles Guiteau (who shot Garfield), Leon Czolgosz (who shot McKinley), Zangara, Oswald (or whoever you happen to believe shot John Kennedy), Sirhan Sirhan. And all of those people were driven to do what they did by some sort of political belief. Sirhan Sirhan, for instance, was reportedly upset by Bobby Kennedy’s support of Israel during the Six-Day War. And when it comes to JFK, hell, whoever did it—the CIA, the mob, the Cubans, the communists, even maybe Oswald acting alone—there was some specific political gripe at the heart of it.

            But then we hit the 1970s, and everything changed.

            In the case of Bremer and Hinckley, neither man seemed to have much by way of any solid political beliefs of their own. In fact when it came to choosing targets, both began by going after someone from one party, then switching to someone from the other party. The man didn’t matter, the policies didn’t matter—all that mattered was the symbol. And it was the symbol that mattered because both Bremer and Hinckley were trying to become famous.

            (At least that was the surface explanation. At heart both men decided to kill the president because they had been rejected by fourteen year-old girls, which strikes me as a perfectly healthy response.)

            It makes perfect sense, doesn’t it? We hit the 1970s, and suddenly all that idealism that motivated all those previous assassins goes straight down the crapper. Suddenly it’s me me me, and people decide to kill the president simply in order to become celebrities.

            (Okay, so maybe Sara Jane Moore considered herself a revolutionary, but we’ll ignore her.)

            I think it’s also interesting to note that in Bremer’s sanity hearing, his diaries were brought in as evidence and he was found sane, but in Hinckley’s sanity hearing they trotted out Jodie Foster, and he was found insane. So in short, the defense successfully used a real celebrity to prove that Hinckley was insane for wanting to be a celebrity.

            It’s a point Morgan made recently—who would want to be a celebrity these days? They may be beloved for this or that briefly, but ultimately they just become whipping boys, something to make fun of, hold in contempt, and hate (case in point, the recent boring ugliness with that golfer).

            That doesn’t seem to stop people, though. Now more than ever before, people are doing some stupid, annoying shit to get their sad little taste of recognition.

            Which leaves me thinking that maybe there is a value to all those insipid reality shows clogging the airwaves. By giving all these hundreds and hundreds of obnoxious, talentless, pathetic nobodies a chance to be famous for a few minutes, they’re taking any number of potential assassins off the streets of America!

            So, umm, Merry Christmas, I guess.


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